The PRI and Loathing in Mexico City
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
December 28-30, 2012
A Political Time Warp
The PRI and Loathing in Mexico City
by PAUL IMISON
Welcome to a new era in Mexico – or so some would have you believe.
Twelve years after finally losing power in the democratic transition of
2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), aka “the dinosaur”,
is back and attempting to rebrand itself as the medicine that Mexico
needs in these blood-soaked neoliberal times. True to form, the T. Rex
started making waves the day that party golden boy Enrique Peña Nieto
took office on December 1st.
It’s a return of the party that governed Mexico for 71 consecutive years
(1929-2000) and created the hugely corrupt and desperately undemocratic
political system that prevails to this day. Blame former president
Felipe Calderon of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) whose
ill-advised, corruption-drenched “Drug War” took well over 60,000 lives
in the past six years. Not to mention near-stagnant economic growth,
rising poverty and the countryside devastated by US agricultural imports
– all of which can, of course, be traced back to the PRI era and were
merely reinforced by the “Christian democratic” PAN.
Welcome to Mexico’s political time warp.
Protests against Peña Nieto’s inauguration and the highly-manipulative,
illegally-financed election campaign that brought him to power had been
planned for months but nobody anticipated the controversy that ensued.
As protesters clashed with police in Mexico City, over a hundred people
were arrested (all but fourteen were soon released for lack of
evidence). One protester lost an eye while a 67-year old theater
director is still in a medically-induced coma after a near-fatal blow to
the head from a tear gas canister.
The protesters, led by the vibrant #YoSoy132 pro-democracy movement,
were overwhelmingly peaceful but a few isolated groups smashed windows
and caused an alleged US$1.7 million of damage in the capital’s
downtown, primarily targeting hotels, banks and businesses belonging to
Citigroup, Wal-Mart and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.
The heavy-handedness of the police was ultimately blamed on the power
vacuum as the presidency changed hands. Fingers have been pointed at
Mexico City’s center-left mayor (and likely presidential candidate in
2018) Marcelo Ebrard. Cops who were present that day told the media that
orders came directly from Ebrard’s Chief of Police Manuel Mondragon y Kalb.
The #YoSoy132 movement, whose members diligently documented fraud during
the electoral process and have remained resolutely non-partisan, has
always stressed pacifism in its marches and naturally distanced itself
from the riots. Evidence has emerged, however, that the PRI paid groups
of thugs to carry out the violence with a view to defaming #YoSoy132 and
other legitimate protesters. Such shenanigans, backed by a compliant
media, were a classic party tactic to discredit social movements during
its seven-decade regime.
Welcome to the PRI’s “soft” authoritarianism.
In an unexpected twist, the Zapatistas (also known as the EZLN) are back
too, and how we’ve missed them. On December 21st, the Chiapas-based
rebels-turned-social-activists came out in numbers not seen for years,
marching silently on five cities in the impoverished southern state –
the same cities they (briefly) occupied by force in January 1994. Their
pre-Christmas comunicado to the Mexican people – on the day that the
Mayan calendar entered a new era and also the fifteenth anniversary of
the 1997 Acteal massacre – went as follows, and beautifully sums up the
To Whom It May Concern:
Did you hear it?
It’s the sound of their world ending.
It’s that of ours resurging.
The day that was the day, was night.
The night will be the day that will be the day.
Democracy! Liberty! Justice!
The Man Behind the Quiff
So just who is this magnificent media creation, Enrique Peña Nieto?
Debate still rages as to whether he’s “old PRI” or “new”. New in the
sense that his mentor is Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the grand neoliberal
president of the 1990s (a generation of Mexican power-brokers known as
the technocrats) or old in that he hails from Mexico State, the most
powerful party stronghold in the country. Enormous Estado de Mexico,
which surrounds Mexico City on three sides, is home to some 15 million
(mostly impoverished) souls and has long been a hotbed of corruption and
Carlos Salinas was one of the most loathed presidents in Mexican
history. This is a guy who doesn’t blame exploitative trade agreements
like NAFTA for the country’s economic underperformance and grinding
poverty; he blames the lack of further neoliberal reforms. And here they
come: the tearing up of the worker-friendly 1970 Federal Labor Law is
already in the bag thanks to a last-minute pact between the incoming
administration and Felipe Calderon’s PAN in October.
On a visit to Washington shortly before his inauguration, Peña Nieto was
described by US President Barack Obama as “a man who likes to get things
done”. Tellingly, Mexico’s new president has hired the same PR firm as
fellow Latin American right-wingers Alvaro Uribe and Porfirio Lobo with
a view to polishing his international image. Cue articles everywhere
from The Economist to Foreign Affairs hyping the promise of Mexico’s new
era, “new PRI”, and new-found respect for democracy.
Peña Nieto followed in the footsteps of his uncle Arturo Montiel Rojas,
winning the governorship of Mexico State in 2005, at which point he was
immediately hyped by a PRI-friendly media as the country’s future
president. At 46 years old, Peña is a housewife’s favorite and a
glamorous antidote to the former ruling party’s “Jurassic PRI” image. A
widower, his love life was splashed all over the society pages when he
met actress Angelica Rivera in 2008. “The Seagull”, as she’s known, just
happens to be a superstar for the dominant, PRI-sponsored Televisa network.
The president is personal friends with some of the most powerful
business figures in the country, including Jorge Hank Rhon and World’s
Richest Man Carlos Slim. As governor of Mexico State, he prided himself
on eye-catching public works projects that saw multi-million dollar
contracts handed out to his cronies in the Atlacomulco Group (the
state’s ruling political-business elite) and Spanish construction firm OHL.
He’s also friends with current and ex-PRI governors, generals and other
figures closely linked to the country’s drug mafia. A cartel member
enrolled in the previous administration’s controversial Protected
Witness program recently testified that the Sinaloa-based Beltran Leyva
drug cartel had free rein at Mexico State’s Toluca Airport.
Those who did vote for Peña Nieto (some 19 million people) mainly came
from poor rural areas where the PRI are masters at coercing voters with
handouts and flashy infrastructure projects. Mexico’s urbanized middle
class split its vote between right-winger Josefina Vazquez Mota of the
incumbent PAN and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic
Revolutionary Party (PRD). The former was undone by a lackluster
campaign and association with lame duck Calderon; the left, as usual,
was attacked beyond reason.
The jury’s still out on whether the return of the PRI signifies a return
to the authoritarian-style politics of the past. Ostensibly, no; Mexico
now has autonomous electoral institutions and Peña Nieto himself has
touted the formation of an anticorruption commission but this is a
country where such institutions are often barely allowed to function and
even the electoral authorities repeatedly bow to political pressure.
Mexico’s “transition to democracy” in 2000 was always a ruse. By the
1990s, there was really no difference between the neoliberal agenda of
the PRI and that of the PAN. Both parties bought the Washington
Consensus wholesale and the PAN soon became marred by the same kind of
corruption, cronyism and narco-politics that tarnished the dinosaur for
so long. Many Mexicans just call them the “PRIAN” – a two-headed
oligarchy bent on serving the interests of the country’s billionaires
and foreign investment giants.
Part of the appeal of the PRI for voters was undoubtedly that the
economy grew faster and the country developed more substantially during
its 71-year reign; growth averaged 3.5% in the 1990s compared to 1.6%
under the PAN’s Felipe Calderon. But that was then and this is now.
Thanks to Calderon’s “macroeconomic stability” during the financial
crisis, analysts are again hyping Mexico as the next big thing in the
global economy. But when have they done anything else?
Peña Nieto’s first move as president was to urge the signing of a Pact
for Mexico incorporating all three major parties. The participation of
the left-leaning PRD was controversial. The Pacto por Mexico is
supposedly a means of informally committing all three parties to common
goals for the country’s future – namely further neoliberal policies –
and has been viewed as a means of marginalizing debate as fiscal,
energy, education and labor reforms take shape.
Drug War Redux
One of the biggest myths about the PRI’s return is that they will “make
peace with the narcos”, thus ending the so-called “drug war” (and
parallel inter-gang rivalry) instigated by President Felipe Calderon in
2006. The old regime was well-known for its tolerance of organized
crime. This argument conveniently leaves out the fact that the
disintegration of the “drug cartels” occurred not under the PAN but
rather the PRI administrations of Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo a
decade earlier. The first major gang war began in Tijuana in 1992.
Peña Nieto has vowed to reduce the country’s murder rate by half within
five years. Yet despite the intense media coverage of Mexico’s violence,
the nation’s homicide rate is actually half that of Colombia’s, roughly
on a par with Brazil and six times less than that of Honduras’ per
capita rate. In Mexico, however, barely 5% of these murders are ever
solved. The brutality of the killings has also been astonishing.
As of right now, Mexico’s “drug cartels” can be split into two factions
– one headed by Joaquin El Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and the other
by the notorious Zetas (billed as “narco-terrorists” on both sides of
the border). One dominates the Pacific Coast, the other the Gulf, with
various territories, or plazas, disputed in between. Cities like Tijuana
and Ciudad Juarez (the latter the world’s “murder capital” in 2009-10)
have calmed considerably since the Sinaloa Cartel took control but there
are still potential flashpoints throughout the country.
The myth, of course, is that it’s all about drugs. According to the UN,
Mexican mafia groups participate in twenty-two different kinds of
organized crime, of which drug-trafficking is just one. The Zetas, in
particular, have increasingly turned to extortion, kidnapping and
human-trafficking to boost their earnings, and are estimated to make
less than 50% of their income from drugs.
All the hype about marijuana legalization in the US states of Washington
and Colorado hitting the Mexican cartels for six is thus nonsense;
cocaine is actually their most lucrative market, which they now dominate
over Colombian groups, while they rake in millions from plenty of other
activities as well. The real problem is impunity.
Peña Nieto says that his anti-crime policy will focus on protecting
ordinary citizens rather than pursuing major drug lords in showy,
made-for-the-cameras busts (Felipe Calderon’s “kingpin strategy”). He
wants a National Police force to replace the PAN-created Federal Police
(itself a reboot of previous incarnations) and will keep the military on
the nation’s streets for now. In what likely amounts to more than just
PR, he’s also recruited former chief of the Colombian National Police
Oscar Naranjo as a “special advisor”.
The investigative news site Narco News has already drawn potential
parallels between Peña’s drug war policy and Colombia’s under Naranjo;
draw the main groups into a “Devil’s cartel” and end violent rivalries
by creating one unified drug-trafficking organization whose disputes are
mediated by the state.
Welcome to the pax narco of old.
The mainstream Mexican media: pretty much silent. Huge chunks of it are
owned by wealthy oligarchs perennially associated with the old ruling
party. Only the likes of La Jornada, Proceso and Contralinea –
constantly written off as muck-raking, left-wing rags – cover Mexico’s
reality, along with a vibrant and growing community of online activists
and bloggers. Facebook and Twitter are now heavily-utilized as political
and social organizing tools as well.
It will be interesting to see where the #YoSoy132 pro-democracy movement
goes from here. The stated goal of the group was to act as a de facto
opposition to Peña Nieto’s administration. They’re the contemporary
heirs of the legendary student movement of ’68, which saw hundreds of
its members massacred by PRI government forces at Tlatelolco Plaza in
Mexico City ahead of that year’s Olympic Games.
Back in May, as it became clear that Peña Nieto was going to steal the
election, #YoSoy132 said it wanted to inspire a “Mexican Spring”; the
country isn’t quite at its Tahrir Square moment just yet, but the
policies that the new government aims to implement are only likely to
antagonize an increasingly frustrated population.
Paul Imison lives in Mexico. He can be reached at: paulimison@...
New book: _Weird Words: A Lovecraftian Lexicon_:
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"